French Indochina was captured by the Japanese during WWII. After 1945 the French tried unsuccessfully to restore their rule in Vietnam, and in 1954 they were defeated by the Vietnamese (led by the Communist Ho Chi Minh) and had to withdraw.
Vietnam was divided into the Communist-ruled North supported by the Soviet Union, and the South supported by the USA.
In November 1961 President Kennedy began providing wide-ranging support for the army of the South, including some American soldiers as ”combat advisers”.
He hoped that with this help, the South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem would be able to defeat the communist rebels.
This did not happen, and the Americans became increasingly unhappy with Diem. In November 1963 – and with US approval – a group of South Vietnamese generals overthrew Diem in a coup.
Tonkin Gulf incident
The ”Tonkin Gulf Incident” – in August 1964 – provided the clash that triggered the US entry into the Vietnam War. Two US destroyers, USS C Turner Joy and USS Maddox reported that they were fired on by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. It is unclear whether hostile shots were actually fired, but the reported attack was taken as a pretext for making air raids against North Vietnam.
Almost immediately, there were serious doubts about the authenticity of the attacks, even among naval personnel in the Gulf. A later historical study by the National Security Council would conclude that the 2 August incident was initiated by the Maddox, and the 4 August incident (an attack on the Maddox and the C. Joy Turner) was not an attack by North Vietnamese forces but a salvage operation gone wrong.
On 7 August the US Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which formed the basis for the considerable increase in US military involvement in the Vietnam War.
The resolution allowed President Johnson to ”take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force” to help SEATO (South-East Asia Treaty Organization) members ”defend their freedom”. The resolution was subsequently repealed in 1970 in the light of evidence that the Johnson administration contrived to deceive Congress about the incident.
Increased US involvement
In March 1965, US President Lyndon B Johnson ordered the first American Marines into South Vietnam. The troops began ”Search & Destroy” missions into areas under guerilla control. They also started bombing North Vietnam in the hope of forcing Hanoi to stop promoting the war in the South.
The US gradually stepped up its military presence in South Vietnam and its bombing raids on the North.
By 1968 over half a million US soldiers were deployed and US casualties ran at over 1,000 a week. Despite this huge commitment, no clear-cut victory was in sight.
From the first landing of American troops in Vietnam, US involvement had come under strong criticism at home.
Although President Johnson was able to maintain the support of most Americans by repeatedly assuring them that the enemy was being steadily defeated, the huge Communist offensive in 1968 burst the bubble.
In January 1968, Communist forces unleashed a huge round of attacks on more than 100 cities and military bases in South Vietnam during their Tet offensive. The operation shattered the cease-fire which had been declared for Tet – the Vietnamese New Year.
The Viet Cong came from the peasant areas of Vietnam and, in Mao’s words, could live among civilians “like fish in the sea”. To eliminate these guerrillas, the US resorted to destroying villages, defoliating vast areas of jungle and clearing populations from “fire free zones”.
Viet Cong units subjected US soldiers to booby-traps, mines and ambushes, as well as fire-fights. Although the American troops were able to exploit the mobility of helicopters and the firepower of artillery, the lightly-armed Communists proved a skilful and elusive enemy.
The world was amazed by media images of a Third World peasant army inflicting grave damage on the American military machine, but the Americans and South Vietnamese hit back hard in February, recapturing the port of Hue.
Although the Vietcong were finally forced to withdraw, the Tet Offensive brought into question the ability of the South Vietnamese army and their US allies to win the war and added fuel to the antiwar movement in both the USA and Australia. From this political perspective, the Tet Offensive might be considered the watershed of the Vietnam War.
In mid-January, about 20,000 NVA troops began to close around the firebase at Khe Sanh (just south of the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam) and the US force occupied a series of heights around the base to prevent the NVA coming too close.
By 21 January the base was entirely surrounded and besieged, helicopters being the only means of supply.
In order to reassure the South Vietnamese of US commitment, especially after NVA victories in the Tet Offensive, General William C Westmoreland, the US theatre commander, decided to fight for Khe Sanh and provided heavy air support.
Even so, a nearby smaller base held by Special Forces was overwhelmed by the NVA using light tanks, and heavy artillery bombardment of Khe Sanh drove the defenders underground.
A succession of NVA attacks were repulsed, and finally, on 1 April, a US attack to relieve the besieged base began.
The column forced its way through and the siege was lifted on 7 April. Although the Vietcong were finally repulsed with heavy losses, the USA later abandoned the base.
US Commander General Westmoreland called for 206,000 reinforcements from the US, but as the war continued to cost more lives, more and more Americans began to question their country’s continuing role in Vietnam.
My Lai massacre
An investigation took place in 1969 into the deaths of 109 civilians who were killed by US troops in the South Vietnamese village of My Lai in March 1968.
The investigation produced enough evidence to charge 30 soldiers with war crimes, but the only soldier convicted was Lt William Calley, commander of the platoon. Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1971, Calley was released less than five months later on parole. His superior officer was acquitted but the trial revealed a US Army policy of punitive tactics against civilians.
News of the massacre contributed to domestic pressure for the USA to end its involvement in Vietnam.
At the end of March 1968, President Johnson admitted that he had failed in Vietnam. Presidential elections were due later in the year, and Johnson declared that he would not be seeking re-election.
Meanwhile, he reduced the level of bombing in the North and called for peace talks. North Vietnam agreed to negotiate and talks began in Paris in May 1968.
The peace talks got nowhere, but it was clear by the summer of 1968 that the American government was looking for a way out. A new President was elected in November 1968 – Richard Nixon – and he was determined to end the war.
Nixon tried to persuade the USSR and China to use their influence over the government of North Vietnam. He told the Soviets and the Chinese that if they helped him over Vietnam the Americans would help them in other areas.
This approach did not work – The USSR and China saw no reason to try to help the Americans over Vietnam.
More of the burden of the war fell on the shoulders of the government of South Vietnam as Nixon reduced the number of American soldiers and insisted that more of the fighting should be done by South Vietnamese.
In April 1969 there were 543,000 American troops in Vietnam. By 1971 the number had gone down to 157,000. This policy of passing responsibility to South Vietnam was known as ”Vietnamisation”.
The South Vietnamese forces were not strong enough to defeat the communists. The government of General Thieu lacked the support and loyalty of the Vietnamese people. Thieu had the backing of landlords and Catholic Church leaders but crucially he had little support from the ordinary Vietnamese people in the countryside.
As part of Vietnamisation, the US stepped up the bombing of the supply lines of the Viet Cong. This had the effect of spreading the conflict into the neighbouring countries of Laos and Cambodia.
The attacks on these countries did little to stop the supplies to the communist troops but did manage to encourage local communists.
Between 1969 and 1973 the US dropped over half a million tons of bombs on Cambodia which contributed to the support for the ruthless Cambodian communists, known as the Khmer Rouge.
Communists won control of Cambodia in 1975. Similarly, the communist force known as Pathet Lao gained support in Laos and took control of the whole country in 1975.
In April 1972 the North Vietnamese Army mounted an all-out invasion of South Vietnam. South Vietnamese troops resisted on the ground, well supported by US airpower. In the second half of 1972, America made the heaviest air attacks of the war on North Vietnam.
Also in 1972, US movie star Jane Fonda visited Hanoi in protest at the war. She posed for pictures with a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun – a move which alienated her from many American citizens and GIs, and prompted a bumper sticker in the States that read “Boycott Jane Fonda – America’s Traitor Bitch”.
In the USA and Australia, the divisions between the anti and pro-war factions grew ever wider. Anti-war demonstrations became a part of daily life in virtually every college and university. Graduating students wore peace signs on their gowns and mortarboards.
Violent protests broke out between the political left and right, and the issue of draft evasion became a political stance with people from all walks of life, including movie and music stars, threw their hat firmly into one camp or another.
A ceasefire was finally agreed in January 1973 and the Americans started to take their troops home. Vietnam remained divided until March 1975 – then the North invaded the South.
Without US military support, South Vietnam collapsed. The war effectively ended on 29 April 1975 when the communists captured the southern capital of Saigon. American TV viewers watched in horror as thousands of south Vietnamese people fought to get on the last US helicopters out of Saigon.
Almost 58,000 American troops died in Vietnam. Closer to a quarter of a million South Vietnamese government troops were killed. The Communist losses were even heavier with an estimated 660,000 Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers killed in combat.
American failure to contain communism in Vietnam led to a deep reassessment of policy towards the communist world. American leaders had been shocked by their failure in Vietnam, and their huge commitment – and a massive number of casualties – had achieved nothing.
Communist governments had taken power not only in North and South Vietnam but also in the neighbouring states of Cambodia and Laos. In addition, Americans had lost confidence in their mission as the world’s leading nation.
President Nixon, and his adviser, Henry Kissinger, developed a new foreign policy for the post-Vietnam world. This became known as ”detente” and involved striving for agreement and peace with the communist world.
In 1981 in Washington DC, a competition to design a Vietnam War Memorial was won by Maya Yand Lin, a 21-year old Yale architectural student.
The low granite V was inscribed with the names of the US war dead, and while it received mixed reviews from the American public, most Vietnam War veterans were pleased to finally receive a monument of their own.